There are some athletes who thrive on being underestimated or disregarded or, in probably the most overused word in American sports the last 10 or so years: Disrespected.
There are some. But I don’t believe there are as many as others think. For instance: I don’t think it works for Tiger Woods. I hear people all the time say that Tiger Woods will thrive on people underestimating him, but I don’t so, and more, I don’t think that fits his story at all. Tiger, I think, thrived on being OVER-estimated. I think he thrived on people thinking he was unbeatable, and he was amazing at living up to that impossible expectation. I remember feeling this strongly when he returned for his first tournament back after the car accident and Tabloid Tango, and he was visibly worried about being booed. I don’t think playing the villain is in his repertoire.
The story of Tiger’s descent, like all true stories, is much more complicated than generally acknowledged — it seems to to me that it involves age and injuries and shame and reputation and swing changes and a less reliable putting stroke. But I do think that he is not driven to prove people wrong. I think he is driven to prove people, like his late father Earl Woods, RIGHT.
Another example: John Elway. To me, he also thrived on being overestimated. There was an aura about Elway in the fourth quarter, in a losing situation, an aura that everyone felt, including fans and players and coaches of the other team. Coaches would try goofy things to keep the ball away form Elway in the last two or three minutes. Defensive players who acknowledge that they needed to “do something special,” to prevent what had become known as a “patented Elway comeback.” Elway was the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft when he came out, he could run, he was tough, he had one of the strongest arms in the history of the league. Nobody underestimated that guy. They played him as if they fully expected him to take off like a helicopter and chopper untouched into the end zone. Elway fed off that mood.
But, it is true I think, that some great athletes do need that mission of “proving people wrong.” That is perhaps the biggest thing that drives them, keeps them practicing a half hour longer than anyone else, gets them to do one more weightlifting set than they had scheduled, keeps them in the gymnasium shooting jumpers at midnight, after the gym has closed, long after everybody had gone home and gone to bed. You notice how Tom Brady keeps referring back to how he wasn’t drafted until the sixth round? I think that minor slight (and really, it was a minor slight — Brady himself did not expect to go until the third or fourth round after an often unfulfilling college career) inflames him. I think he needs it.
Michael Jordan needed it. That’s why you kept hearing that same overblown story story, again and again and again, about how he was cut from his high school basketball team. That story was never as good as Jordan made it sound. He wasn’t exactly “cut” from the team. He was a sophomore and his high school coach thought it would be best if he played on the junior varsity team, where Jordan was such a star that varsity players would sneak out of the locker room just to watch him play.
But what else could inspire a personality like Jordan’s, a personality that hungered for slanders and libels? He was probably the top recruit in America coming out of high school. He was one of the few freshman to ever start for North Carolina on Day 1, and that year he was the one who took and made the game-winning shot against Georgetown in the national championship game. He became college basketball’s national player of the year, and though he was chosen third overall in the NBA Draft (behind Hakeem Olajuwon and, absurdly, Sam Bowie), he was on the cover of The Sporting News with the subhead: “The Next Dr. J.”
And then, of course, he was an immediate sensation in the NBA, the first Nike superstar, and in time the richest athlete on earth and a six-time NBA champion.
All the while, it seems obvious, he hungered for challenges, for doubts, for cynicism to feed the fire. I think that’s a big part of what the baseball thing was all about. I’m sure there were countless factors in Jordan’s decision to play minor league baseball when he was the best basketball player in the world — his father’s tragic death among them. But I think one of those factors is that Jordan came to point where the challenge of basketball no longer fueled the impossibly high ambition that coursed through him. Like Alexander the Great, he had no more world left to conquer. Baseball served him well on two fronts. One, it brought back the doubters in force — NOBODY thought he could make is as a baseball player, and I really think that’s exactly the kind of world where Michael Jordan feels most comfortable, a world where he (and he alone) believes. He worked very hard to become a good baseball player, and he collected much-needed enemies along the way (like Sports Illustrated), He played baseball better than anyone had any reason to expect considering everything, but more than anything I think it re-energized him, it re-lit the pilot light, and when he came back to basketball there actually WERE doubters, and he savaged them, destroyed them, mocked them, won three more championships and led perhaps the greatest team in the history of the NBA.
I would argue that when you are wired like that, when you need the doubters in your life to push you and drive you and make you feel alive, it’s hard to find peace. Ali kept coming back. Favre kept coming back. Mark Spitz, long after he won seven gold medials, jumped back in the pool. Pete Rose stalked the all-time hit record. Jim Brown talked often about coming back, and he challenged Franco Harris to a race that sullied him. And, of course, Jordan came back again to play for Washington, and this time the doubters had the upper hand. Jordan was too old to be great. Still, the hunger does not fade when the body does. At his Hall of Fame induction speech, Jordan talked about coming back again at 50. There was laughter. People thought it was a joke. Jordan said: “Don’t laugh.”
Of all the athletes I’ve ever written about extensively, I’d say that no one has needed the doubts and slights and slaps more than Albert Pujols. It could be pure coincidence that Pujols had the most productive offensive day in World Series history just two days after he was ripped in the press for committing an error that cost his team a World Series game and, even more, for not sticking around to explain himself to the press. It could be a coincidence … but I sort of doubt it. There are people who can channel their rage in amazing ways. Pujols, I think is one of those people.
Unlike Jordan and Tiger, Albert Pujols really was sold short for most of his life. He had come to the Kansas City from the Dominican Republic when he was still a kid, and he hit baseballs so hard and had such an adult-looking body that it was assumed that he had lied about his age. This led to many side effects. He was a phenomenal high school hitter, but he was not even selected first team All-Metro by The Kansas City Star — this was in part because of his shaky defense as a shortstop, but there was also some real animosity toward him by other high school coaches because of the supposed age factor. He was not drafted out of high school, and again the retroactive reasoning is that he did not seem to have a natural defensive position but it seems more likely that the age rumors had sunk him. He was legendary his one year at Maple Woods Community College — it is believed his done strike out a single time, and he crushed monstrous home runs. The St. Louis Cardinals, famously, drafted him, but not until the 13th round.
And, though I’m sure Pujols would have liked for it all to work differently, I feel just as certain that this pain is a big part of what formed him. He worked so hard, at least in part, to prove people wrong. He drove himself to absurd extremes, both physically and mentally. A batting cage session with Albert Pujols, both then and now, is something resembling a holy experience, with every pitch being a life challenge, with every swing a heartfelt prayer. The intensity of Albert Pujols at work seems to just burn off him. What can drive a man to work that hard? To care that much? To push that far? That’s the story biographers and writers search for, the story I’m searching for as I write my book about Joe Paterno, and it isn’t easy to find, and you can never be sure you actually DID find it. In Pujols’s case, I do think that a big part of his success comes from that heartfelt desire to crush every person who ever doubted him, who ever questioned his talent, who ever determined that he wasn’t good enough.
Pujols showed up at his first spring training after a spectacular single season in the minor leagues. And Cardinals manager Tony La Russa couldn’t take his eyes off Pujols. This made sense because Albert already was pretty close to a finished product as a hitter. But La Russa (like Paterno, I think) sees his sport more as art than science, more as something to be interpreted than figured out. And I believe him when he told me that he was drawn not to Pujols bat or his talent but to his hunger, his fierce determination, his drive to be great. Even just a few days into that training camp, La Russa was already telling people how he had never seen a player quite like Albert Pujols. He wanted Pujols on his team immediately. An injury allowed La Russa to bring Pujols back to St. Louis. And Pujols hit .329/.403/.610 his rookie season — one of the great rookie seasons in baseball history.
Once a player driven by doubters has great success, he or she has to figure out new ways to reenergize. After all, nobody has really doubted Albert Pujols the last 10 years. But Pujols has never had any problem finding critics and doubters — he sees them everywhere. When he left after World Series Game 2 without talking to the media, that was not out of character. He does not like the media. He talks sparingly after games, and almost always with reluctance. A couple of years ago, I got to spend some time with Albert for a Sports Illustrated story, and he let some of his emotions loose. He feels like some in the media have tried to make him look bad. He feels like some in the media want him to fail. I did tell him that there have been many wonderful stories written about him, as both a player and a man, and he acknowledged that. But I was missing the point. The point is that Albert Pujols needs to be the best baseball player in the world. He needs that in ways that would be impossible for you or me or anybody else to understand. And having a cynical media out to get him serves that greater purpose. Maybe in those moments when he doesn’t want to take extra batting practice, when he wants to let his mind wander a little bit, when he wants to pull back just a touch, he can say to himself: “Yeah, that’s just what the media wants me to do.”
I think Albert Pujols is a good person. I think he cares about people, I think the charity work he does is very much from the heart, I think faith drives his life. But I also think Albert Pujols has to be a great baseball player; that cuts deep into who he is as a man. And to be a great baseball player, he needs doubts to drive him. So he is not always a NICE person. He is rarely an open person. I think he needs to feel close to the pain, needs to remember that nobody in the game wanted him, nobody drafted him, nobody believed in him. He needs to feel that if he rests for a minute, the media will bury him. I think he needs that the way fire needs oxygen.
Obviously, Saturday night’s remarkable World Series performance did not happen just because Albert Pujols was ticked off at the media for skewering him and wanted to make a point. Nobody’s that good. Saturday night happened in part because Albert Pujols is one of the greatest hitters who ever lived*, because it was a good night for hitting, because if you groove pitches over the middle of the plate Albert Pujols knows how to hit them a long way.
*Saturday, in the roar of Pujols’ remarkable performance, my colleague Jon Heyman listed off his greatest hitters of all time. They were: (1) Babe Ruth; (2) Ted Williams; (3) Barry Bonds; (4) Lou Gehrig; (5) Albert Pujols. And Jon said Pujols is the greatest right-handed hitter of all time. I think all of that is premature — Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, among others, merit respect — and I think that once again Stan Musial, among others, is too easy to overlook. But the larger point is the larger point. Pujols already is in the discussion.
But do I think Albert Pujols WANTED to prove a point? You bet I do. All of us are driven by countless motivations, many of them unknown even to ourselves. Some of us are trying to live up to our parents expectations. Some of us are trying to win over the girl or boy who spurned us years ago. Some of us want to be rich, to be famous, to be loved, to be admired, on and and on and on and on and all combinations in between. Whatever else drives Albert Pujols, I think he wants to prove a point to the doubters out there, even last one of them, real and imagined.